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Music

How Joni Mitchell learned to sing

@josephtaysom

Joni Mitchell has a wonderfully original voice that angels gilded, and it took her years of dedication in order to sculpt her talent so magnificently. The singer has never had a single lesson, but a musical awakening gifted Mitchell with a distinct sound like no other.

When Mitchell was a teenager, her dream was never to be a musician, but instead a burning desire to become a commercial artist. It was this ambition that took her to the Alberta College of Art, where she learned the ukelele and the Canadian’s life ventured down an unexpected path.

From there, she soon graduated onto the guitar, but, just like with her vocal technique, Mitchell threw the handbook to the side and soon developed her own style. This wasn’t out of some deep-held belief that she needed to be original to be a true artist but born out of sheer laziness.

“But I didn’t have the patience to copy a style that was already known,” she admitted to Rolling Stone in 1969. After buying a Pete Seeger instructional record, she’d attempted to learn how to play, but it was too much hassle. Instead, Mitchell decided that she had no other option apart from trusting her intuition to craft her playing.

The story is in a similar vein to how she learnt to sing, and unsurprisingly, there was no formal training involved for Joni. “I had none. I used to be a breathy little soprano,” she recalled in the same interview. “Then one day I found that I could sing low. At first I thought I had lost my voice forever. I could sing either a breathy high part or a raspy low part. Then the two came together by themselves. It was uncomfortable for a while, but I worked on it, and now I’ve got this voice”.

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Due to there being zero coaching as Mitchell grew her voice, there were a few minor hiccups she encountered along the way as she learned about her strengths and weaknesses. Reflecting upon those early years, the Canadian admitted in 2002 with Rolling Stone that with hindsight she understands initially, she was trying to “imitate Judy Collins and Joan Baez” before her ingenuity began to seep through.

The singer said: “Well, for one thing, I found out two years ago that I’m an alto. My mother was an alto, my grandmother was an alto. And all this time I’ve been singing sort of soprano just because at the time that I began to sing in art school, I’d imitate Judy Collins and Joan Baez, just to get money to smoke, basically. With no ambition. Just for fun.”

Adding: “I’ve heard early things where I sound quite a lot like Joan. And I don’t really frankly remember listening to her much, but she was being played around me. Maybe that’s why I started singing so high. I had a three-octave range then, so anything that I could play, I could sing, too.”

When she was ambitionless and singing solely to feed the vices in her life, Mitchell was ignoring her true voice, one that was lingering inside, patiently waiting to be unlocked. As soon as Mitchell let it out of the box, it’s no coincidence that her career began to take shape, and there are no amount of singing lessons that can match the heavenly beauty of her vocals.

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