It’s hard to imagine a situation in which the brilliant Joni Mitchell was ever not taken seriously. However, that’s the sad reality of a significant portion of her career. Mitchell faced more adversity than her male peers when she emerged from the swinging sixties and, bizarrely, one of her best-loved tracks unfathomably landed her in hot water.
Mitchell’s divine writing coupled with the faultless vocal range set her apart from her contemporaries, but at the time, she wasn’t given the same creative leeway. History has served Mitchell well, and she is now rightly viewed as a pioneer of a movement, one of the most revolutionary writers alternative music has ever witnessed. However, it took Mitchell time to win around her doubters who, during her breakthrough, didn’t believe she had the life experience required to perform her brand of music.
‘Both Sides, Now’ is one of Mitchell’s most cherished efforts and epitomises why the singer-songwriter is a talent that only comes around once in a generation. She wrote the song after being inspired by Saul Bellow’s book Henderson the Rain King. “I was reading Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King on a plane and early in the book Henderson the Rain King is also up in a plane. He’s on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds,” she once said.
“I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song. I had no idea that the song would become as popular as it did.”
Mitchell was barely in her 20s when she wrote it, and her critics assumed she lacked the life experience required to discuss seeing things from ‘both sides, now’. However, what people didn’t understand was that she’d already been through a divorce and given birth to a child that was put up for adoption, all before moving to New York City to start her musical adventure. In comparison to her peers, Mitchell had seen more of life’s beauty as well as its painful blemishes — but that’s beside the point.
“Both Sides, Now’. When I first wrote that, I was very young and I took a lot of teasing,” she recalled to Clive Davis during a Zoom interview in conjunction with the Grammy’s. “‘What do you know about life from both sides now?'” Over time, however, Mitchell has said that she “finally grew into it.”
Mitchell explained that the early reaction to the material she was creating made her doubt herself, as she “sort of rejected” a whole host of her earlier ideas. She decided to stop writing about far-fetched themes and, instead, decided to get more autobiographical.
“I started scraping my own soul more and more and got more humanity in it,” she added. “It scared the singer-songwriters around me. The men seemed to be nervous about it, almost like [Bob] Dylan plugging in and going electric. Like, ‘Does this mean we have to do this now?’ But over time, I think it did make an influence. It encouraged people to write more from their own experience.”
Rather than writing in vague terms, Mitchell decided to write from the heart and operate in a brutally honest manner that made millions fall in love with her.
Although she was only 23-years-old when Mitchell penned ‘Both Sides, Now’, this was Joni at her most unfiltered yet wonderfully touching. It made other musicians notice they needed to write in an unfiltered way like her, too, even if they initially teased her for the change in lyrical direction.