With Joni Mitchell joining her fellow Canadian Neil Young in the current crusade against Spotify, it will be harder than ever for a younger generation to actually hear the scores of genius music that Mitchell created over a 40-year career. From darkly spun tales of depression to light whimsical odes to love, Mitchell had the kind of career that any great singer, songwriter, or musician would kill for. She even got to do something that few great artists are able to do: walk away on her own terms.
It’s interesting to wonder what Mitchell’s major legacy is going to be. Will it involve her groundbreaking guitar work that incorporated open tunings and bizarre intervals in an increasingly creative fashion? Perhaps it’ll be her songwriting, which came to represent the ideals of the hippie movement before branching off into more impressionistic territory. Or it might even be her compositional prowess, taking the best elements of folk, jazz, and pop as she evolved into one of the most restless music writers of the past five decades.
But the one significant loss that the Spotify boycott has taken away is her voice. Mitchell’s voice underwent a wild evolution: beginning as a high, piercing soprano, it gradually fell as age, and a lifelong devotion to smoking cigarettes, turned it into a smokey mezzo-soprano. The added smokiness and gruff gave her the edge that she had always longed for, and albums like Hejira and Mingus use it to great effect.
Even though the later-era Mitchell is a force all her own, it’s the early records with that high treble that remains iconic. In songs like ‘The Dawntreader’ and ‘Down to You’, Mitchell layers up her own vocals into impossibly close harmonies that can shatter glass. Elsewhere, on tracks like ‘Blue’ and ‘River’, it’s a haunting ghost that floats around her piano lines, adding a melancholic edge to some already solemn tunes.
But Mitchell wasn’t above a little fun either. Songs like ‘Carey’ and ‘Raised on Robbery’ are loose, playful jaunts that let Mitchell hang up the more serious side of her work and just have fun. One of the best examples comes from ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. Despite dealing with serious issues like urbanisation and environmental destruction, Mitchell is clearly having a ball singing the most easily accessible pop song of her career, so much so that she can’t but let out a laugh when it’s all over.
Mitchell always favoured complexity in her work, but ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ is the complete opposite. Three chords, an acoustic guitar, some light percussion, and Mitchell’s voice belting out the monster melody at the song’s centre. The song was a top 20 hit in the UK and Canada, but somehow only scrapped the bottom of the Hot 100 in America. A later live version charted higher, but it’s the studio version that still has that spark more than 50 years later.
Check out the isolated vocals for ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ down below.