Joni Mitchell: Fear of a Female Genius
October 17, 2017 10:07 AM   Subscribe

 
I don't think I could name a Joni Mitchell song if asked, so what album should I try to rectify this? Is Blue as mentioned in the post the best to start with?
posted by Fence at 10:51 AM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]


Fence: Yes it is!
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:55 AM on October 17, 2017 [4 favorites]


I still prefer Court & Spark.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:08 AM on October 17, 2017 [11 favorites]


1988, A lover's first gift to me was dubbing Blue + Court & Spark to cassette-- the plastic case inlay was Georgia O'Keefe.

Fantastic article. I hadn't known about the Zadie Smith quote, nor Prince's adoration. I probably idolize Dylan, but he should pilgrimage to her home and have a stroke mowing her lawn, or something.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 11:10 AM on October 17, 2017 [5 favorites]


Is Blue as mentioned in the post the best to start with?

Blue's a great album but hers' is hardly a muse that ever stood still. If it's a smart 70s pop intro you want, I'd recommend Court + Spark. If you want a broader sonic palate, incorporating jazz and so-called "world" music - Hissing of Summer Lawns. Or maybe you want a more 60s, folk-infused vibe ...
posted by philip-random at 11:13 AM on October 17, 2017 [5 favorites]


Blue is my favorite, but I love Clouds and For the Roses so, so much.

I spent many hours of adolescence singing along to these.
posted by maggiemaggie at 11:14 AM on October 17, 2017


Nice to read. “Nearly every bass player that I tried did the same thing. They would put up a dark picket fence through my music,” she recalls in Woman of Heart and Mind.

That seems a synesthesia comment, born of her genius. I love how she owns her brand. I remember my friends who were in music, speaking dismissively of her, because of her originality, her authenticity, now that I correctly name it. They compared Judy Collin's classicism, and then disparaged Joni Mitchell. Of all the artists who make music, she is the soundtrack of my chosen life, and a muse for the freedoms I take most seriously.
posted by Oyéah at 11:16 AM on October 17, 2017 [11 favorites]


I sure love Song to a Seagull, and Ladies of the Canyon.
posted by Oyéah at 11:17 AM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]


That seems a synesthesia comment, born of her genius

That's interesting. Mitchell elaborates some more, in Bill Milkowski's Jaco biography, and says, of lesser bassists, like the LA studio A-list players she'd been using "....they couldn't see the shapes of the music...".
posted by thelonius at 11:24 AM on October 17, 2017 [4 favorites]


I'll be the odd woman out and recommend "Hejira". That album and "Boys for Pele" got me through my first big break up. Tori has long named Joni as one of her inspirations, so no surprises the two went hand-in-hand.

No regrets, coyote.
posted by offalark at 11:41 AM on October 17, 2017 [15 favorites]


I'm gonna go even further out and recommend Shadows & Light. It's a Live album featuring Jaco Pastorius (mentioned briefly in the article) and a bunch of other big jazz names of the time, like Pat Metheny. Definitely not what most people are thinking of when they think of Joni Mitchell, but it's a damned fine album.

(For specific songs off that album, my personal recommendations are "Free Man in Paris" and "Goodbye, Porkpie Hat".)
posted by tobascodagama at 11:58 AM on October 17, 2017 [6 favorites]


Fence: Ain't nothing wrong with starting out with Hits and Misses both.
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:59 AM on October 17, 2017 [4 favorites]


Hejira was the album that made me an instant fan as a precocious vinyl collector in the early '80s. I still consider it her absolute masterpiece.

Refuge of the Roads
and Song for Sharon are the two single greatest pieces of pop storytelling ever created.
posted by mykescipark at 12:00 PM on October 17, 2017 [9 favorites]


Fence: “I don't think I could name a Joni Mitchell song if asked, so what album should I try to rectify this? Is Blue as mentioned in the post the best to start with?”

You probably do know at least a couple of Joni Mitchell songs, if only as covered by other people; first of all there's "Big Yellow Taxi," which is one of the most popular songs to cover I can think of – "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot," &c; second of all there's a song most people think of as a CSNY song, that famous swan-song of the 60s, "Woodstock" – "we are starsdust - we are golden / and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden."

But keep in mind, those are songs she wrote very, very early in her career. Even if she'd only written those two songs, she'd be a major figure of the 1960s. She moved very far away from that in the next few years, though.

Blue is good – the first album-length flowering of her genius – but it can be a trap; don't get caught. People love to pigeonhole it as soft, sentimental "woman-music," tender folk ballads which are "confessional." (Joni herself despises this label; she always asks: "what exactly was I 'confessing' to, again?") Listening to Blue, please mark the incisive wit which is hidden behind her beautiful voice, for example in what I think might be the most wildly hilarious and biting line in music history:
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."
Joni pretty quickly moved past the folk framework and started experimenting with some things that others (like, to take two of her major musical descendants, Steely Dan and Peter Gabriel) wouldn't get around to for years – like building songs around found-sound sampling, and using complex jazz arrangements to build the backbone of more complex progressive rock tunes.

That's why, though others may recommend Blue – and surely that's her most accessible record, and it's utterly genius on its own – I only really started to see the complete brilliance that she brings to music when I heard the second track from the great Hissing Of Summer Lawns: "The Jungle Line," which uses a Burundian drum sample to do strange and magical things.

Also, to get a sense of her breadth, it's probably worth listening to her song about David Geffen, famous record magnate: "Free Man in Paris." This is a song which carries conventional rock resonances – the Dead, the Allman Brothers, etc – but is very complex and has an interesting vibe that's somehow quite foreign and ambiguous while being familiar: is this an appreciation of David Geffen? Is she serious, or sarcastic? I mean, geez, he is a pop producer. It's interesting, and while you're thinking about all that you start to realize how fun the song is to listen to.

Joni Mitchell is a whole world to explore. Great musicians have understood this for years – whenever Prince was asked who his favorite musician was, he'd always answer that it was Joni Mitchell; Steely Dan spent most of their career telling anyone who'd listen that they'd be nothing without her influence. It's sad that this gets filtered because she's a woman, and it's sad that she mostly shows up on lists when they're lists of great women musicians. That's why I chafe a little at Blue being her most popular record – because I suspect it's most popular because it's the easiest to pigeonhole. Still, I adore it, as I adore all of her work.
posted by koeselitz at 12:02 PM on October 17, 2017 [42 favorites]


So I don't disagree with any of the above. But I'll also put in a nod to Wild Things Run Fast from 1982, especially as an accessible introduction to her work. The title track. And other favorites from that record include Moon At the Window, and You Dream Flat Tires.
posted by Naberius at 12:04 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


She is my favorite, most beloved artist. It hurts that I'll never hear her sing live.
posted by kitcat at 12:05 PM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]


Shadows and Light was the very first album i ever bought, from saved up pocket money, in 1981 (i think). When i first saw the title of this post my stomach clenched worried it would be an obit.
Even through my years as an xtian fundie i kept her albums, and her music in my heart, and her music contributed to my recovery when i left fundamentalism.
She is a genius.
posted by 15L06 at 12:16 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


Reposting what I wrote here on Mefi in 2013:

"Seriously, Joni is etched into my heart so deep.

When I was 19 I was deeply in love, lost in San Francisco, staying in youth hostels, riding my bike all over that goddamn city. Court and Spark was on a mix tape, given to me by my best friend before I left, who I was I madly in love with, and was the reason I bailed on Dallas for a cross-country journey on Amtrak to SF in an attempt to run away and nurse a love that could never see the light of day, me a punk shit, her the beautiful daughter of a GM exec.

Every facet of Court and Spark is a love letter carved into my psyche. The whole thing. It was my life at that time. I conquered the hills listening to that album on a sony walkman. I must have listened to it a thousand times over the two months I listlessly roamed that city, with sour grapes because I lost my heart... as a troubled child, breaking like the waves on Malibu"
posted by Annika Cicada at 12:19 PM on October 17, 2017 [12 favorites]


I have been a huge Joni fan for 20 years and I had no idea that was her on the cover of Don Juan... There are so many great things in this article and I feel terrible that this reveal is what I will most remember about it.
posted by munchingzombie at 12:20 PM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]


I think if you were gonna do yourself right you'd get Blue, Court and Spark and The Hissing of Summer Lawns then spend an afternoon alone with them and nothing but your deepest self, and perhaps a good bottle or two of wine.
posted by Annika Cicada at 12:27 PM on October 17, 2017 [6 favorites]


The 2000 version of Both Sides Now is one of my top 5 favorite songs. If not top 3. I love the maturity imbued in that version - such a counterpoint to her youth in the first version. Whenever I hear it, I stop whatever I'm doing and soak it in - I absolutely cannot just halfway hear it while multitasking, it must be LISTENED to. There are many other wonderful (female) artists, but there will only ever be one Joni.

The only other song I feel like that about is Dar Williams' After All. There are so many other songs I love - but those two wrench my heart out of my body and make me LISTEN. Every time.
posted by widdershins at 12:32 PM on October 17, 2017


I think if you were gonna do yourself right you'd get Blue, Court and Spark and The Hissing of Summer Lawns then spend an afternoon alone with them and nothing but your deepest self, and perhaps a good bottle or two of wine.

You gotta get Hejira in there too, though. You just gotta.
posted by dnash at 12:34 PM on October 17, 2017 [6 favorites]


Thanks for this, it was lovely.
The little bit about Sinead O'Connor staring at her shoes was interesting, along with Rickie Lee Jones, those three women are the goddesses of my musical pantheon.
And yes, Hejira is a good place to start.
I saw her once, in the venue that became so controversial during hurricane Harvey, Lakewood Church, which was a basketball arena at the time.
posted by Bee'sWing at 12:42 PM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]


Joni's early works introduced me to somehow-very-familiar places I hadn't consciously visited before. She braided a unique double-helix of poetry and tones. To me the only comparable revelations were some of Paul Simon's.

Always unafraid to explore, always original, she walked away from merely recounting her successes, kept peering deeper into that fabric. Each time I found her later stuff, I admired her capacity to explore fearlessly yet delicately balance technique and artistry.
posted by Twang at 12:59 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


what album should I try

If great singer-songwriter pop is what you're into, Blue (1971) and Court and Spark (1974) are the surest doors in. People who are more into pop than jazz tend to like these two most.

People who are into jazz love the records that follow: The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) and Hejira (1976).

If it turns out you like any of these four, you'll probably love all four of them eventually.
posted by pracowity at 1:00 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]


Compared to more copyright pursuing artists, there are a lot of really nice YouTube performances online for Joni. These, for example. This too.
posted by Bee'sWing at 1:18 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]


Footnote: Henderson the Rain King is absolutely worth reading through (I've been thinking I should pick it up again). I think she would have liked how it unfolded... Oddly enough, it also shows up as a Counting Crows song.
posted by emmet at 2:12 PM on October 17, 2017


I agree with all the above and I'll just add that Blue is one of those songs that is guaranteed to make me cry, every time, for no reason other than that it's so beautiful it just breaks my heart.

and every time her name pops up on the blue my heart skips a beat and I go "please oh please oh please, not joni..."
posted by fregoli at 2:19 PM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]


Seconding Ladies of the Canyon. After Blue, it's my favorite. "For Free" is one of her best songs about her struggle with fame - and there were many. Also "The Circle Game" gets me choked up every damn time.
posted by rocket88 at 2:21 PM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]


Blue is one of those songs that is guaranteed to make me cry ...

From the same album, I get misty just thinking about "Little Green," knowing what it's about. I have to skip past that track when I'm driving.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:28 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


I didn't know anything about Joni Mitchell except for hearing her name in the pop culture ether when I was very young. I had no idea that Joni had written/performed "Big Yellow Taxi" or Woodstock" until after I'd heard this. I saw the video for it on MTV. And now that I'm older, I'm surprised that such a song was ever on that channel. It's too mature of a song for what MTV was in those days, but dammit if 15-year-old me didn't love this song to bits.

And now that I'm older, I actually understand it! At least I think I do.

Anyway, I'm a Hejira partisan, myself.
posted by droplet at 2:46 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]


I experience a love/hate for Joni Mitchell. There's no way of discounting her genius, her willingness to push through boundaries, her gift of song writing; but sometimes I have a hard time with her voice. Pity, and my loss.

My favourite song is from Don Juan's Reckless daughter, and it's the first song on the album: Overture Cotton Avenue. Listen for the crazy, single bass note at 1:46 and then more bass goodness at 2:00. Marvelous! And the other-worldly vocals, all disappearing into an almost normal pop song. Except for the fact that there's all kinds of weird shit going on in the background behind the beat. Then the train type sounding horns at the end. Man, this song just moves all over the place.

I could probably talk at length about 30 different songs.

Yeah, love/hate, but mostly love.

Good article, thanks for the link.
posted by ashbury at 2:53 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]


I'm far from familiar with all of her massive body of work, and thanks for the reminder, but Mingus Ah Um is a superb album. About half the songs on Shadows and Light are taken from it, but instead of Jaco she had Stanley Clarke in the studio. I have been listening to it every now and then for over thirty years, and no sign of stopping.
posted by holist at 3:52 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


I'm far from familiar with all of her massive body of work, and thanks for the reminder, but Mingus Ah Um is a superb album. About half the songs on Shadows and Light are taken from it, but instead of Jaco she had Stanley Clarke in the studio

Mingus Ah Um is a Charles Mingus album. Are you thinking of Mitchell's record Mingus? It does not have Stanley Clarke on it. In fact I have never heard of Clarke working with Joni Mitchell, and there is no such credit listed for him here.
posted by thelonius at 4:21 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


The thing about Joni is that she manages to surprise with delight (surely the Germans have a word for that) with each new exploration. Its rare that so many albums from one artist would bowl me over that way: Blue was the soundtrack when I was coming of age, but Hejira, Court and Spark, the Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Mingus all had a huge impact on me. For me, her albums have opened up who new worlds of possibility, over and over again.

My current favorite Joni song is "The Magdalene Laundries" which is pointed and bitter and angry, glorious to sing along with when the world feels heavy. Over the decades, my favorite Joni song has shifted and moved, but every single Christmas mix I've ever made includes "River", which captures the melancholy edge of the Christmas season so beautifully.
posted by julen at 5:08 PM on October 17, 2017 [5 favorites]


"Night Ride Home" is a great album to make and have dinner with.
posted by allthinky at 6:24 PM on October 17, 2017 [3 favorites]


To me, every single one of her albums is a joy to listen to. Unique, sometimes challenging but never dull or worn out. Every single one.

And the from the article regarding the later version of Both Sides Now - "her vocal performance was so richly stirring that several members of the ensemble broke down in tears during the recording". I get misty eyed whenever I listen to it.
posted by jabo at 6:39 PM on October 17, 2017


I've never really connected with Joni's music - it didn't get played in the house when I was a kid and I always thought "Clouds" was simplistic and over-rated.

Until, past 40, I went to a big singalong and "Clouds" was on the list and halfway through I got it, and started crying, still trying to sing along.

Never heard of Ricky Lee Jones before. Thanks, Bee'sWing!
posted by bunderful at 7:41 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


Without Joni, there would basically be no Indigo Girls, and Indigo Girls are as necessary in my life as oxygen. Joni's Night Ride Home an album I come back to regularly. It includes the track Slouching Toward Bethlehem, which feels apropos of now.
posted by hippybear at 8:00 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


This is a great article. It makes sense for Prince to have been such a fan, sort of the way my other top superstar (Joanna Newsom) admires the work of my original top superstar (Vladimir Nabokov). It is so satisfying—and I guess validating—when my favorite geniuses love each other. Also, the Prince tidbit makes his singing the line from “Help Me” in the middle of “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” extra good.

And it’s delightful to see recommendations for her ‘80s and ‘90s work—especially in light of the contempt she had for pop music at the time. I’ll add Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm to Wild Things Run Fast (great to listen to if you’re dating around and hooking up and feeling weird about it) and Night Ride Home. They are all so comforting. Would also recommend the Woman of Heart and Mind documentary. I love her so much. I’m glad she’s still here, on earth, and I’m thrilled that I get to be alive while she’s here.
posted by witchen at 9:11 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]


Best album is subject to interpretation, but funny thing is that unlike pretty well most any other fickle late 20th Century musical genius, there actually isn't a 'worst album'. The auteur guys all tend to have odd experiments or lame albums that are hard to listen to. For Mitchell, even the albums that I don't play as often are fairly likable.
posted by ovvl at 9:16 PM on October 17, 2017 [2 favorites]


I love Joni Mitchell and could (and have) listened to Blue on repeat for days at a stretch.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:32 PM on October 17, 2017




thelonius, thanks for correcting both my terrible mistakes! The moral is something about perceived vs. actual serviceability of brains and not posting while hanging around airport arrivals after midnight... of course it is Mingus. As for how Clarke got mixed in there (the more worryingly wrong thing I wrote) - I went to check the vinyl cover. He's thanked as one of the musicians playing on the experimental recordings that led up to the sessions actually on the album. I would love to hear those! Anyway, I stand corrected.
posted by holist at 11:29 PM on October 17, 2017 [1 favorite]


Seconding votes for Heijira and Hissing of Summer Lawns. Big vote for Song of the Seagull and Turbulent Indigo as well. Aside from her evocative unique melodies, her lyrics are pretty amazing. Witty short stories some times, poetic contemplation others. I think my favorite is Borderline from Turbulent Indigo. It struck me as coming from a 60s idealist (the one who wrote Woodstock) coming up against 80s-90s cynicism.

Pardon the long excerpt but I just had to:

Every bristling shaft of pride
Church or nation
Team or tribe
Every notion we subscribe to
Is just a borderline
Good or bad we think we know
As if thinking makes things so!
All convictions grow along a borderline

Smug in your jaded expertise
You scathe the wonder world
And you praise barbarity
In this illusionary place
This scared hard-edged rat race
All liberty is laced with
Borderlines

posted by GospelofWesleyWillis at 1:05 AM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


holist, thanks for the Clarke info - I did not know that!

I wonder if they (Mitchell and whoever, if anyone, she was working with as a producer) were leaning toward using upright bass (which Clarke is outstanding on), or if Pastorius was just busy with Weather Report during pre-production? Or if they were simply thinking about ditching him; the above-mentioned biography says that his issues were beginning to get the better of him by the Shadows and Light tour (showing up days late for rehearsals despite being the tour's musical director, cocaine and alcohol + untreated bipolar beginning to cause unpleasant to intolerable effects, etc)?
posted by thelonius at 3:53 AM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


and +1 to Night Ride Home
posted by thelonius at 3:58 AM on October 18, 2017


thelonius, very possible, sadly. I watched the 2014 documentary about Jaco when it came out, and the way he fell through the holes was atrociously sad... obviously for a good few of the people remembering those times, too. But, ever so selfishly, I am so glad he did play on those records. Mingus and Shadows and Light are very high on my all-time list. It is now time I check out a lot more Joni Mitchell... because Ladies of the Canyon (I hope I'm getting this right from memory!) is the only other album I've heard.
posted by holist at 6:29 AM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


Well, he was performing at a high level for some years into the 80's, and there were glimpses of brilliance almost until the end, but shit got very bad indeed. By the time the Word Of Mouth band toured Japan, in '82 I think, it was clear that something terrible was wrong. The footage of him drunk, living on the street, busking on a broken guitar, in that documentary, was awful to see.

I don't think it's selfish of us to treasure the beautiful music that he created. Especially on Heijira, there's this beautiful, sensitive accompanist side to his playing that, sadly, disappeared in later work. I think Mitchell wasn't particularly impressed by super-chops virtuoso playing, and Jaco very much wanted to impress her.
posted by thelonius at 6:44 AM on October 18, 2017 [3 favorites]


I know next to nothing about Joni Mitchell, so thanks everyone for all the info. Now feels like the right time in my life to get into her. Looking forward to it.

But this thread reminds me of something touched on by the article. Where are all the other people who haven't heard her music? I saw only a handful of comments to that effect. Surely I'm not the very last person to the party. Maybe they read the article and just had nothing to say, but I wonder how many skipped over it entirely and if that has to do with her gender.
posted by mantecol at 7:01 AM on October 18, 2017


I like that she ended that with the bit about Prince.
posted by latkes at 7:59 AM on October 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


Where are all the other people who haven't heard her music? I saw only a handful of comments to that effect. Surely I'm not the very last person to the party.

God, I hope you are. It is hard to here that someone who was so much a part of the fabric has just faded away. A new album by Joni Mitchell was important, as someone mentioned upstream, she was about on par with Paul Simon (you know him- right?) or maybe Bob Dylan.

I don't think it was because she was a woman (though I can be pretty blind in that regard) - my guess is that it was a combination of her not really gelling with fans and her move away from mainstream folk/pop and into less accessible jazz that side-railed her. Or maybe the fact that most of her songs require attention and so are not terribly suited to soundtrack duties.

As far as places to start - my guess is that you have hears a fair amount of her stuff bu just haven't id-ed it to her (or maybe that is just me pretending she isn't just disappearing). Also, as everyone is been saying, her career has a long and varied path. So I would start with Hits and Misses, her greatest hits bookends. That way you can pick what era of her you like best and go from there.
posted by rtimmel at 7:18 PM on October 18, 2017


Joni Mitchell was important, as someone mentioned upstream, she was about on par with Paul Simon

For me, her old work has aged much better than Simon's, some of which has kind of a corny 70's sensibility about it. Which is fun if you're in the mood, admittedly.
posted by thelonius at 7:47 PM on October 18, 2017 [2 favorites]


Part of why Mitchell has faded is that she retired from touring, what? 15 years ago? And while she's done some albums (to great success), she's not been a musical presence on the stage.
posted by hippybear at 8:15 PM on October 18, 2017


Yeah, I think it's been about 15 years....I think she's been into painting mostly for some time now. One reason why....the article mentions that cigarettes took the soprano range of her voice, and I fear that process probably continued.
posted by thelonius at 4:15 PM on October 21, 2017


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