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From Bob Dylan to Leonard Cohen: Joni Mitchell’s favourite songs of all time

There are few artists that can match the lyrical and emotive power of a Joni Mitchell song. The folk singer started her career in Canada with a song in her heart and pure intentions to have it heard by everyone. Not convinced of her ability to take the limelight, Mitchell spent some time focusing on songwriting for other artists. It arguably honed her talent for creating pin-point sharp songs built out of honest and authentic expression.

Soon enough the singer caught the attention of the growing counter-culture and quickly became, alongside contemporaries Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, one of the foremost folk artists in North America. Since then, she has rightly been revered as one of the most influential songwriters of the 20th century with countless artists citing her as an inspiration—but what songs have inspired Joni throughout the years?

One of Mitchell’s releases, in fact, one of her lesser-known releases, wasn’t constructed of her finest lyrics and songwriting abilities (bar one song). Instead, it was comprised of songs that she had chosen to cover, songs which 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. 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, 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, 15 years later, it’s hard not to get lost in Mitchell’s measured words.

One area of music which Mitchell is particularly fond of is the jazz. The singer picks not only Duke Ellington’s ‘Subtle Lament’ which she describes as “inimitable” and says that “the notes wink at you”, not only does she select Billie Holiday’s ‘Solitude’ a singer Mitchell is a big fan of saying: “No one I know could express hurt and loss with such a good-hearted tone – not a trace of self-pity or melodrama in it. This was her great gift,” but also picking Miles Davis’ classic ‘It Never Enter My Mind’.

It’s clear Mitchell was a big fan as she says of the song: “Miles was contemptuous of singers. He said, ‘They’ve got words – I’ve got to do it without the words.’ On this track, Miles sings. He captures and transmits, without words, all we need to know about the situation, in the universal language of tone,” she says.

Two fine singers Mitchell did pick, however, were the iconic Ray Charles and his song ‘Lonely Avenue’ and Etta James’ classic ‘At Last’ which Mitchell discovered in a more curious way: “I first heard this song on a tampon commercial and then again in a Jaguar ad. Funny way to find a masterpiece.” But perhaps Mitchell’s favourite singer was Marvin Gaye, picking his song ‘Trouble Man’.

“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.”

The only artist to feature two songs on the list of favourites was the obscure French band Deep Forest. Mitchell picks their songs ‘Night Bird’ and ‘The First Twilight’ which feature on the same record, “A friend played me this album. I could not get enough of these two tracks—the sophistication of the setting and the genuineness of the Pygmy musicians—truth and beauty,” she explained before adding that another French musician made the cut too as the ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ singer selected Edith Piaf’s ‘Trois Cloches’.

The selection came complete with a trip back to Joni’s childhood: “When I was seven or eight years old, I went to Helen La Franeer’s birthday party. Helen lived on our street but out past where the pavement ended and the gravel began. They were very poor and there seemed to be no father around.”

The singer sets the scene and remembers the radio blaring in the kitchen, “A men’s choir began to sing, and up from the bottom of it bubbled a voice like I had never heard before—a woman’s voice. Captivated by the sound of it, I was drawn up from the table and out to the kitchen to listen closer. When the song ended I asked Helen’s mother, ‘Who was that?’ She was tiny and sickly looking. She fidgeted with the bottom of her cardigan and she said, so shyly, ‘That was the Little Sparrow.’”

As well as picking some songs from outside of her field (she even selects New Radicals song ‘You Get What You Give’ which she credits with rising “from the swamp of ‘McMusic’ like a flower of hope.” Mitchell also picked a few songs from her contemporaries through Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’ was a little before her time, she also picked out Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan as favourites.

Speaking of Berry’s song, Mitchell remembers: “When rock ‘n’ roll hit I went crazy for dancing. The weekend dances were too far apart for all who caught the fever, but weekdays, in the summer, you could always find kids hopping around to ‘Tutti Frutti’ or ‘Johnny B. Goode’ on the patio by the jukebox at the Avenue H swimming pool. For those people who never heard a (so-called) ‘race record,’ rock ‘n’ roll seemed to come out of nowhere.” It’s an image of Mitchell’s childhood that few could dislike.

Picking Dylan’s song ‘Sweetheart Like You’ Mitchell revealed that she bumped it for another: “It was another Dylan song, ‘Positively 4th St.’ that had the most influence on me. I remember thinking as I heard it for the first time, ‘I guess we can write about anything now—any feeling.’ As I reviewed it for this collection, though, I found it a little too grumpy for my current state of mind and so I chose this one.”

While Mitchell and Dylan’s relationship fluctuates, it would appear that she also has a soft-spot for Leonard Cohen too, referring to him as “the boudoir poet, the hungry ghost, the perennial penitent. Young girls take him seriously. I did. He seemed so worldly to me as a young woman. He gets funny as you get older. I guess I can call him Lenny now.”

Few would have been afforded such an honour but we’re sure that the legendary Joni Mitchell would have been one of them. Below, we’ve got the full list of Joni Mitchell’s favourite songs and pulled together the playlist too. Visit Mitchell’s official website for the lowdown on each selection but it’s just about the best tribute album you will hear. A tribute, not to an artist, but from an artist to music itself.

Joni Mitchell’s favourite songs:

  • ‘Clare De Lune’ – Debussy
  • ‘Subtle Lament’ – Duke Ellington
  • ‘Solitude’ – Billie Holiday
  • ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ – Miles Davis
  • ‘Harlem in Havana’ – Joni Mitchell
  • ‘Saturday Night Fish Fry’ – Louis Jordan
  • ‘Johnny B. Goode’ – Chuck Berry
  • ‘Third World Man’ – Steely Dan
  • ‘Night Bird’ – Deep Forest
  • ‘The First Twilight’ – Deep Forest
  • ‘Trois Cloches’ – Edith Piaf
  • ‘At Last’ – Etta James
  • ‘Lonely Avenue’ – Ray Charles
  • ‘Trouble Man’ – Marvin Gaye
  • ‘Sweetheart Like You’ – Bob Dylan
  • ‘The Stories of the Street’ – Leonard Cohen
  • ‘You Get What You Give’ – New Radicals
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