“Joni [Mitchell’s] music should be taught in school.” — Prince
A few moments within musical history feel destined to have happened. None more so is this felt than when two stars align and create beautiful music together. Whether it is Eric Clapton providing the slide guitar solo for The Beatles’ ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps‘ or Bruce Springsteen acknowledging that his song, ‘Because The night’, would work perfectly in the hands of Patti Smith; some collaborations are like gifts from heaven. Of course, for every perfect moment, there are millions that have passed us by, including a unique Joni Mitchell and Prince connection that never came to fruition.
Prince has written a fair few songs for other artists in his time. Two of the most famous are ‘Manic Monday’ for The Bangles and, of course, Sinead O’Connor’s iconic reimagining of his song ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. Still, he’s had plenty more pieces fly under the radar and into the discographies of your favourite artists. Sadly, though, his song of Joni Mitchell was turned down by the folk icon.
In the world of music, there are not many stars who could match the staggering creative power of Prince. Famed for his meticulous handling of every aspect of his music, Prince became a phenomenon in the 1980s, soon becoming one of the most revered musical acts of his generation. However, even His royal Badness had his heroes. In that particular purple list, there was only one name at the top: Joni Mitchell.
Of course, Joni Mitchel acting as a hero to a musical contemporary is nothing particularly new. Everyone from Chaka Khan and Neil Diamond to Chrissie Hynde and Herbie Hancock has cited her blend of soulful philoso-folk as a major influence. But few of them were quite as obsessed with Mitchell as Prince was when he was a teenager. Mitchell even remembers seeing Prince in the crowd during one of her concerts in Minnesota in the 1970s. “I remember seeing him sitting in the front row when he was very young,” She told New York Magazine. “He must have been about 15. He was in an aisle seat, and he had unusually big eyes. He watched the whole show with his collar up, looking side to side. You couldn’t miss him — he was a little Prince-ling.”
Prince even wrote fan letters to Mitchell, in which he attempted to make this deep affection for her known. His writing style came across as a little psychotic, worrying her publicity team. “Prince used to write me fan mail with all of the U’s and hearts that way that he writes,” she recalled. “And the office took it as mail from the lunatic fringe and just tossed it!” He also paid tribute to his icon in song too, not only on Controversy cut ‘Joni’ but as the music playing on the radio in ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker’ from 1987 alongside many covers of Joni Mitchell throughout the years.
So, when the Purple One had a chance to work alongside Mitchell in a musical sphere, he jumped at the chance and offered her one of his songs. During a session back in 1986, Prince laid down his song ‘Emotional Pump’ and soon figured it to be right up Mitchell’s street. He decided it would be an ideal track for Joni Mitchell and sent it along. Sadly, however, the song didn’t quite live up to expectations.
“He implied that something would happen between our two musics. Something that he had never done before. That whet my curiosity,” Mitchell told the Auckland Sun around the time of their collaborative session. “I asked him to explain it, but he said he could not put it into words. The closest he came to articulating it was that it was the open harmonies I got in conjunction with funk into a hybrid that would be fairly fresh.”
“I said why didn’t he build me a track,” she continued, “so he sent a song with him singing ‘Emotional pump, you’re my emotional pump, You make my body jump.’ I called him back and said that I could not do the song.”
For Mitchell, it wasn’t about the abundance of new wave vibrations — she had wildly embraced synths on her own album Dog Eat Dog; it was that the song was far too risque. “‘I can’t sing this; I’d have to jump around in a black teddy. You think I should be jumping around in a black teddy?’ He said, ‘Oh Joni, we don’t do that anymore!'”
It may have seemed a trivial hurdle to Prince; however, for Joni Mitchell, the leap was too big, and she shelved ay chances of working on the song. It wouldn’t stop their admiration for one another, however. Until he sadly passed in 2016, Prince operated as an open and qualified Joni Mitchell superfan. Likewise, Mitchell would often praise the legendary guitarist and songwriter. While we can all hope for a lost Joni Mitchell/Prince cut somewhere in the ether of the internet, until we do, we’ll just listen to ‘Emotional Pump’ and try to imagine Mitchell on the mic.