If one was to think of the singer-songwriters who are experts at conjuring up the most emotion in the self, usually the likes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and maybe even Nick Drake spring to mind. That’s not to say the three aforementioned artists do not have happier songs; it’s just that they are known for their tearjerkers, which is totally fine, they’re three of the most accomplished and well-respected songwriters of all time.
Then, if you were to consider the most outwardly confessional singer-songwriters of all time, the ones who speak at length in their works about the trials and tribulations of life, often with a penchant for the romantic, you’re immediately met with the image of Joni Mitchell, and Joni Mitchell again. The Canadian icon crafted a niche as the premier confessional songwriter, the one that every other subsequent confessional songwriter has looked up to, including Morrissey, Cat Power and even Taylor Swift.
In fact, Mitchell would come into the former’s orbit in 1997. Set up by Rolling Stone, who sensed the opportunity of a lifetime, Morrissey conducted a mammoth interview with Mitchell, and together, the pair set about discussing some home truths and dispelling myths.
At one point in the interview, Morrissey asks Mitchell: “Because your music is confessional, you have to explain yourself repeatedly in much more depth than anyone who makes nonsense, throwaway, useless music?”. Then, being the typically contentious character that she is, Mitchell found fault with the syntax of Morrissey’s question. Offering brilliant insight into her artistic vision, she replied: “I don’t think of myself as confessional. That’s a name that was put on me”.
Although everyone has always considered Mitchell a candid writer, she feels that her work is different from what is defined as ‘confessional’. She then gave a rather controversial example: “The confessional poets like (Sylvia) Plath, whom I read later when they started calling me confessional, most of their stuff seemed contrived to me and not as greatly honest as it was touted to be.”
One would argue that Mitchell’s point about her divergence from the likes of Sylvia Plath is very misguided, or even a bad case of denial. Her work is guilty of being so contrived at points that tarring Plath with that brush seems like some flaccid defence of her Achilles heel. Of course, nowadays, Plath’s work can also be seen as somewhat overdone, particularly after the thousands of depressed wannabes she spawned watered the effect of the style down. However, only a brief mention of Plath’s severe mental health struggles and shocking suicide make Mitchell’s comments seem a little tactless.
“The point is not to confess,” continued Mitchell with her opinion, “I’ve always used the songwriting process as a self-analysis of sorts. Like the Blue album—people were kind of shocked at the intimacy. It was peculiar in the pop arena at that time, because you were supposed to portray yourself as bigger than life. I remember thinking, ‘Well, if they’re going to worship me, they should know who they’re worshipping’.”
Mitchell‘s point about fans knowing who they’re worshipping is a clinical one. This is the kind of tacit understanding of music that has endeared her to fans and the heartbroken for six decades, embodying the thought that honesty is unmatched. Still, though, I struggle to heed the difference between confessional and self-analysis. It seems something of a paradox, doesn’t it?
Read the full interview here, via Rolling Stone.