Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner’s guide to Joni Mitchell
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. Soon enough Mitchell caught the attention of the growing counter-culture and soon became, alongside contemporaries Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, one of the foremost folk artists in North America.
As the calls for rock ‘n’ roll’s funeral seem evermore deafening, we are doing our bit to help educate our readers on some of the genre’s greatest ever artists and, perhaps most importantly, their foundational figures. While some of these acts are rightly known as icons, we’re a little concerned that they will remain just that—icons. For us, the real pleasure of such stars is the art they created so we are handing out a crash course in some of music’s finest, this time we’re bringing you the six definitive songs of Joni Mitchell.
As we aim to offer up a little insight into the icons of the 20th century, we’re distilling their back catalogues into just six of their most defining songs. The tracks that offer up the first steps in getting to know the music and the person behind the legend. Joni Mitchell is most certainly a legend and getting her huge catalogue into just six songs is one of the more difficult challenges we’ve had.
Through a plethora of studio albums, Mitchell has proved that she is one of the most special songwriting talents modern music has ever seen. It’s an extensive career which has seen the singer, a noted vocalist as well as songwriter, be recognised as one of the founding pillars of music as we know it.
Below, we’re taking a look at six songs which amply define the singer and should offer any true beginner a fine jumping off point to start their education properly. Here are Joni Mitchell’s six definitive songs.
Six definitive songs of Joni Mitchell:
‘I Had A King’ (1968)
Though Joni Mitchell had been travelling around the world writing and singing her songs for some time, for many people, the first song on Joni’s first album Songs from a Seagull was their introduction to the talented singer. Introductions don’t get much better than ‘I Had A King’.
Mitchell displays all of the poetic qualities and pop sensibilities that would make her music not only wholly unique but utterly captivating. It was the first shape of Mitchell’s writing coming into focus. As she takes on the role of the observer, narrating the collapse of men, Mitchell paints her imagery with a feathered touch and a gilded intent. Using her own experiences to guide her hand, Mitchell became one of the most authentic artists around.
‘A Case of You’ (1971)
Mitchell was never scared to share a piece of herself in her music and on ‘A Case of You’ she wrote the defining confessional track. Whether or not it is Mitchell herself in the smoke and mirrors of the lyrics is up for debate. However, what she brings in the vocal performance of the song is about as close to putting one’s heart on a plate as you can get.
“The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals,” Joni Mitchell once said of her masterpiece. The song is a view on a blossoming relationship after it has begun to wilt in the sun. The track’s beginning is a poetic nod to the past and a resounding picture of life after love, “Just before our love got lost, you said, ‘I am as constant as a northern star,’ and I said/’Constantly in the darkness – where’s that at? If you want me I’ll be in the bar.’”
One line, in particular, has always risen above the rest when considering ‘A Case of You’ – “I could drink a case of you, darling/Still I’d be on my feet”. It has always largely been lauded as a signal of Mitchell’s devotion to her protagonist but when considering this from the singer’s point of view, it is more likely a testament to the man’s inability to sweep Joni Mitchell off her feet.
“One of my main interests in life is human relationships and human interactions,” Mitchell once told interviewer Malka Marom. “I really believe that individuality, the maintenance of individuality, is so necessary to what we would call a true or lasting love, that people who say ‘I love you’ and then begin to do a Pygmalion number on you are wrong, you know. Love has to encompass all the things that a person is.”
‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ (1975)
When Joni Mitchell released her seventh studio album The Hissing of Summer Lawns she perhaps reached the peak of her talents. While the album isn’t quite as highly regarded as the aforementioned Blue or the upcoming Hejira, it saw Mitchell’s songcraft soar and her arrangements improve too.
One of the singer’s most musically rich albums is perfectly demonstrated in the title track of the LP. Over the lush decadence of the music sings some of Micthell’s most visceral lyrics, providing a simple and effective darkness that does well to balance the album and this track too.
If there’s one thing that Mitchell had developed over her career by the time she approached the 1976 album Hejira it was a sharp tongue. Through a series of condemnations, Mitchell had gathered a reputation as the lonely wanderer and in Hejira she embraced it. With no rules and only the road ahead of her, Mitchell delivered one of her finest albums of all time.
“I’m porous with travel fever, but you know I’m so glad to be on my own,” she sings on the title track of the album. With it she yet again proved that out on her own Mitchell was the ultimate singing bard, a poet, a charmer and an unstoppable force of creative power. It’s an insistent moment of her career and one we’re more than happy to listen to over and over with the signature clarinet gilding everything with a touch of joy.
‘Turbulent Indigo’ (1994)
We’re going to jump ahead to the nineties. Starting her career in the sixties alongside Dylan and Baez, Mitchell suffered a similar fate in the eighties. With attention drawn to the new wave sounds being made through synths and drum machines, the music world disowned the folk clique which had laid so many foundations before them. It meant that Mitchell spent some years in the wilderness of modern pop.
By 1994, she had hit the jackpot as she not only returned to her roots ut won a Grammy for Pop Album of the Year with her 15th studio record, Turbulent Indigo. It’s an album of bubbling heat and serious direction as Mitchell not only takes on an ex-lover but also Ireland’s homes for “fallen women”. But, as before, the best distillation of her talent comes from ‘Turbulent Indigo’, the title track. It’s a surreal lullaby, taking inspiration from her favourite artists Vincent Van Gogh and imbued with the strong songcraft that Mitchell is best known for.
‘Both Sides Now’ (2000)
We imagine when we skipped over this song in the early part of the list there was uproar. ‘Both Sides Now’, originally released in 1969 is one of Mitchell’s unstoppable anthems. Touching and emboldened by potent emotion, the song has become a mainstay of her canon. But perhaps an even more revealing version of the song came in 2000 when Mitchell covered her own song.
The difference between the versions of the songs are massive. While the original is angelic at times and innocent at others, Mitchell approaches the song in 200 with a heavier heart and lungs. A smoking-habit has given her vocal a heavy gravelled tone and her gathered wisdom now casts a sneering glare over the 26-year-old who wrote the track. “I really don’t know life at all,” she growls both to her audience in the new millennium and herself in the past.