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Music

When Joni Mitchell reclaimed a David Crosby Classic

@SamWKemp

Joni Mitchell’s career can be seen as a quest to escape from under the shadow of the men she dated. Even today, it’s common for interviewers to assert that David Crosby discovered the Canadian singer-songwriter and therefore made her a star – implying that without his good grace, she would have remained an obscure coffee-house singer until the end of time.

Anyone who has given such a suggestion more than a moment’s thought knows it’s pretty preposterous. Even in those early days of anonymity, Mitchell’s talent was self-evident. As Crosby himself admitted to Howard Stern in 2021, Mitchell’s success had nothing to do with him, she really was “that good.” According to the musician, Mitchell remains “the greatest singer-songwriter of our time. I think she’s as good a poet as Bob [Dylan], and she’s ten times the musician and singer that he is.”

Crosby’s words are evidence that, while the pair might not get on very well these days, there’s still a lot of love there. Back in the 1990s, the pair’s post-romance friendship was shakey but healthy enough that they worked together on a few songs for Crosby’s 1993 album Thousand Roads, one of which was ‘Yvette In English’.

One of only a handful of songs Joni co-wrote, the story goes that Crosby had originally wanted Mitchell to produce a track for the album. Distrustful of producers, she turned down the offer but said she’d write him a track instead. Suffused with a distinctly existentialist mood, ‘Yvette In English’ went through several rewrites before Mitchell was happy with it, many of which she faxed over to Crosby for his approval.

The final version opens with a portrait of two strangers meeting in a French Cafe. “With her lips wrapped around a cigarette,” Mitchell wrote, “Yvette in English saying “Please have this Little bit of instant bliss”

The lyrics simmer with an eroticism that belies Crosby and Mitchell’s intimate past. Perhaps that’s why her version of the track is so mesmerising. The track appeared on 1994’s Turbulent Indigo, which came out the year after Crosby’s Thousand Roads.

In Mitchell’s hands, the dialogue between the strangers in Yvette in English’ becomes a conversation between two ex-lovers speaking in “foreign tongues”, trying to find some common ground. There’s a sense of something previously hidden being bought into the light, of someone finally telling the truth. Turbulent Indigo, her 15th studio offering, would go on to win Mitchell a Grammy Award for Best Pop Album. Today, it still sounds as fresh and vital as ever.