From Prince to Led Zeppelin: The 10 best Joni Mitchell covers of all time
One of the finest songwriters the world has ever known, Joni Mitchell made her money initially, working behind the scenes as a ghostwriter, providing some of the decade’s best songs. After a trip to Britain and an immersion in the swinging sixties culture that was bubbling up in London, Mitchell found her confidence and set out on a path to become one of the most celebrated songwriters of her generation.
Often seen as a confessional writer, Mitchell was of the folk music school of thought meaning, as well as providing covered of standards, one would use the art form of the song to share their own intense expression, whatever that may be. For Mitchell, already struggling to make a large impact thanks to her gender, it was an opportunity to share more of herself than ever before. She became the foreword in evocative, emotive and exemplary songwriting. Rightly, she gained a few fans along the way too.
Those few fans soon became hundreds, then thousands and now millions. Mitchell is one of the most celebrated pop music singers, which means she has gained a few admirers both inside and outside the music industry. Therefore, the pioneering figure of Mitchell has been the subject of a lot of covers across her impressive career. Below, we’re bringing you 10 of our favourites to sink your teeth into.
You’ll notice, unlike her contemporaries like Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and, of course, Bob Dylan, Mitchell tends to scare off the larger acts of the rock ‘n’ roll world. Not because her songs are difficult to master or particularly troubling to sing but because they are so intrinsically connected to Joni Mitchell the person, that singing it as one’s own is nigh-on impossible. However, some have stepped up to the challenge.
Below, we’re picking 10 covers that pay homage to the great talent of Joni Mitchell.
10 best Joni Mitchell covers:
‘A Case of You’ – James Blake
James Blake has recently become a sincere adoration figure in the Far Out offices. The singer has always floated out on the periphery, making authentic and soulful indie ballads for us all to languish in. Since he’s opened up to the wider public about his mental health struggles, it has added a new gravity to his work.
It seems as though Joni Mitchell and James Blake are a match made in heaven after Blake turned confessor. Musically, they are of the same ilk too, each delicately dancing around their tender subjects. Blake’s version of Mitchell’s classic song ‘A Case of You’ is a jarringly beautiful rendition as the singer’s vocal bristles with the possibility of loss and his piano chimes with optimism.
‘Woodstock’ – Led Zeppelin
Perhaps one of Joni Mitchell’s most famous songs was written about an event the singer never actually attended. ‘Woodstock’ accurately depicts the emotion surrounding one of the biggest cultural events of all and Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones chose to give the song another jolt of energy and turn it into a Led Zeppelin behemoth.
It’s hard to imagine Robert Plant’s sensational vocal being reduced down to Mitchell’s tender tone, but the band really pull it off. There’s more than enough potency surrounding this cover to ensure that you both pay homage to Mitchell and attention to Led Zeppelin — the perfect combination.
‘Ladies of the Canyon’ – Annie Lennox
Annie Lennox is one of the most underrated vocalists of all time. Her inspiring tone is often forgotten amid the pop lunacy of Eurhythmics, and on this cover, she really gets to shine. Lennox acts as the lightning rod for Mitchell’s songwriting talent and delivers a stunning performance.
‘Ladies of the Canyon’ is one of Mitchell’s most cherished compositions as it reflects on the rock ‘n’ roll neighbourhood of Laurel Canyon and the craziness that went on within it. Lennox captures this and adds in her own dollop of vocal poignancy to make the song truly pop.
‘River’ – James Taylor
Of course, James Taylor’s connection to Joni Mitchell is beyond professional capacity. The two shared a wild romance for some time as well as a host of stages, most notably sharing the stage for a BBC special that confirmed each artist as the real deal.
The 2001 tribute to Joni Mitchell welcomed Taylor for a performance of one of Mitchell’s most favoured songs, ‘River.’ The track is a wildly popular classic. It’s been recorded more times than any other of Mitchell’s compositions, having been recorded over 432. That said, nothing can really match the tender vulnerability that Mitchell brings to the song, except for, maybe, James Taylor.
‘Help Me’ – K.D. Lang
Taken from Joni Mitchell’s incredibly gifted album Court & Spark, ‘Help Me’ is one song that has always shined, no matter the singer. However, when it got into the hands of K.D. Lang, a singer with an utterly beautiful tone, the song shone brighter than ever before.
It’s Mitchell’s highest-charting single time, reaching number seven on the Billboard chart. Having been covered by artists such as Many Moore, Divine Brown and Chaka Khan, it’s stiff competition for the top but, we’d argue, that K.D. Lang’s version is the definitive rendition of the track.
‘Woodstock’ – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Back to Woodstock and now on a little more familiar ground, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young delivered a pertinent cover of the song in 1970, the same year Mitchell released it on her album Ladies of the Canyon. The group took it to a more upbeat and hard rock sound, and it served as the lead single from their album Deja Vu. The familiarity came mainly from the personnel involved.
Mitchell famously shared a relationship with David Crosby and Graham Nash and was also close friends with Neil Young and Stephen Stills; many suggest she was even the link between the two sets of men and joined them together for the supergroup. This cover shows the friendship they shared and the high esteem the band held Mitchell in.
‘For Free’ – The Byrds
Mitchell’s ex-boyfriend David Crosby features in our next entry too, this cover of ‘For Free’ from The Byrds. Another song from Ladies of the Canyon, The Byrds picked up this track for their 1973 release. It is one of the best tracks from the album, and The Byrds give it a richness that is otherwise lost in covers of this track.
A densely constructed piece, Mitchell’s heartening track is full of tone and emotion, and The Byrds jump on this. They deliver a rounded performance of the song that very few could match. Though nobody comes close to Mitchell’s original — as is often the case — The Byrds version of the track is worth revisiting whenever possible.
‘Big Yellow Taxi’ – Bob Dylan
One of the more covered songs in our list, it’s hard to imagine anybody succinctly summing up the entire counter-culture movement, than Joni Mitchell singing ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. To hear other people singing the song usually means to deal with a terrible karaoke version.
However strange it may be to hear this iconic tune without Mitchell’s effortless vocal performance, it feels just as joyous to hear Bob Dylan doing his best to sing one of the most famous songs of the sixties. Often seen as an outtake from Self-Portrait, the Dylan record that was essentially a collection of covers put together by his record company without his permission, the track is still wholesome, charming and charismatic enough to put a smile on our face.
‘Free Man In Paris’ – Sufjan Stevens
Few modern artists have given themselves so completely to music as Sufjan Stevens. The lo-fi indie genius has always crafted song from Mitchell’s shadow, using her confessional tone as a guiding light to his own expressions. ‘Free Man In Paris’ may have been written about David Geffen but Stevens jumps on the song with an indelible authenticity.
Stevens said of the song: “I could not even presume to fathom the jazz voicings of the original, nor could I traverse the pronunciation of French avenues or Joni’s rollercoaster vocal lines. My approach was much more primitive: what would it sound like if David Geffen had, in fact, left the humdrum of the music industry for a fantasy weekend getaway to Paris? I decided to conjure up a party song, with strings and trumpets and trombones and vibraphones marching in a parade down the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, all lit up with fireworks.”
‘A Case of You’ – Prince
Prince’s adoration of Joni Mitchell has been well documented. The Purple One was a huge fan, and Mitchell even remembers spotting the singer at one of her shows. “Prince attended one of my concerts in Minnesota. I remember seeing him sitting in the front row when he was very young. He must have been about 15. He was in an aisle seat, and he had unusually big eyes,” she said.
Adding: “He watched the whole show with his collar up, looking side to side. You couldn’t miss him—he was a little Prince-ling. Prince used to write me fan mail with all of the U’s and hearts that way that he writes. And the office took it as mail from the lunatic fringe and just tossed it!”
Pushed forward by Mitchell’s artistry, Prince decided to pay homage to the singer with a cover of her song. Prince never shies away from a challenge and the same can be said for this beautiful cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case Of You’ from her seminal album Blue. One difference is, while the aforementioned covers were from Prince’s later career, this version of Mitchell’s track comes from his fiery beginnings. It’s a testament to the pedestal upon which Prince put Mitchell’s talent.