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The writers and artists who inspired Joni Mitchell

As anyone who’s poured over her hyper-literate lyrics knows, Joni Mitchell is a voracious absorber of culture. Whether it’s classic works by esteemed authors, avant-garde cinema by auteur directors, or standards from the greatest minds in jazz, Mitchell was a sponge who took influence from anyone and everyone.

When speaking with New York Magazine back in 2005, Mitchell gave her take on all different types of media. Initially, she described how classical composers and Friedrich Nietzsche helped her break out of the small town on the outskirts of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. “I loved Debussy, Stravinsky, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, anything with romantic melodies, especially the nocturnes,” she said. “Nietzsche was a hero, especially with Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He gets a bad rap; he’s very misunderstood. He’s a maker of individuals, and he was a teacher of teachers.”

When it came to arriving in New York by the mid-1960s, as a painter herself, Mitchell was not taken with the Modernist movement. “Abstract Expressionists like Pollock and Barnett Newman were big at the time, but I was not a fan. I wanted to paint in a folk-artist-y way. My heroes were Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, and Rembrandt. I think Picasso is about as modern as I got. But I incorporated things that they rejected as well as movements that happened later.” 

Eventually, Mitchell gets into songwriting but rejects the notion that her writing was based within classic poetry. “I didn’t like poetry. When I read the Shakespearean sonnets, I feel like some of them are mercenary. How many poems can you write where you say, ‘You’re so beautiful that you should reproduce yourself and I’m the guy to do it’? [Laughs.] They can’t all be inspired. It’s like somebody came to him and said, ‘Give me a poem like you did for Joe and I’ll give you 50 bucks.'”

“I find a lot of poetry to be narcissistic,” Mitchell continued. “I agree with Nietzsche on the poets. He said something like: ‘The poet is the vainest of the vain, the peacock of the peacocks … he muddles his waters so that they might appear deep.’ I know I’m throwing the baby out with the bathwater in a lot of ways. I guess there are a few poets I like, though, like E. J. Pratt and Carl Sandburg.”

Mitchell also gives her take on her contemporaries in the New York folk scene. “I briefly liked Leonard Cohen [Mitchell’s relationship with Cohen inspired the song ‘Rainy Night House’ from Ladies of the Canyon], though once I read Camus and Lorca I started to realize that he had taken a lot of lines from those books, which was disappointing to me. Dylan was an influence even though initially I was a detractor. I thought he was a Woody Guthrie copycat. 

Ultimately, Mitchell settled on two restlessly creative thinkers as the figures she either liked or took the most inspiration from. “It’s in my stars to invent; I was born on Madame Curie’s birthday. I have this need for originals, for innovation. That’s why I like Charlie Parker.”

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