An Introduction To Joni Mitchell In 10 Songs

Joni Mitchell | Auckland Photo News/Flickr
Joni Mitchell | Auckland Photo News/Flickr
Photo of Dominic Smith
25 August 2016

Joni Mitchell is regarded by many as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Born in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Mitchell is a true Canadian icon. Her music touches upon the richness of the human experience, as she thematically bounces from love to heartbreak, from ecstasy to melancholy, in the hills of Laurel Canyon. These themes, alongside her passion for social and environmental issues, give her sound a rich and varied mix.

You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio (1972)

Under pressure from her record label to write a pop song for the album, For The Roses, Mitchell produced this upbeat tongue in cheek song. The light and fun folksy melody is accompanied by a harmonica and lyrics that poke fun at the song itself; as she admits to being a bit corny. The song plays up to her image as a fun-loving hippy chick, but a closer listen also shows an example of Mitchell’s intelligent writing style.

As the title suggests the song is written from the perspective of the radio station itself. This unusual use of narration turns the song into a tribute to the average person wanting to escape into the music and the radio welcoming as many people as possible. It is a song written about the song itself. Ultimately it proved to be Mitchell’s most commercially successful single at the time of its release, her little joke worked.

Hejira (1976)

Hejira, the title song of her 1976 album, is Mitchell’s first foray into genuinely psychedelic music that maps her exploration of her spirituality. The song’s title is a transliteration for Islamic journeys, with particular reference to Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina. Mitchell takes on the guise of a prophet-like wanderer, looking down on that state of humanity and life.

The trance-like sound playing underneath the guitar has the power to put the listener into a meditative and contemplative state. She takes us on a journey to examine both her life and our own through love, heartbreak, and transcendence.

Free Man In Paris (1974)

Written for and about her friend and music producer David Geffen, Free Man In Paris is another example of how Mitchell has never been afraid to open her life up to her listeners. The song is admired widely for its beautifully simple portrayal of a man enjoying his vacation from his busy life. The lighthearted melody and sense of freedom made it one of Mitchell’s most popular songs.

The Last Time I Saw Richard (1971)

The Last Time I Saw Richard, is the first song on this list from the legendary album Blue. It is one of the most complete songs of all time written about romantic disillusionment. Mapping the life of the narrator’s former lover, Richard, who has given up on the reality of romance.

The soft piano gives the song its reflective, melancholic tone, which is perfectly mirrored by Mitchell’s uniquely heartbreaking voice. The pain that Richard feels is a clear parallel to her own fear about the apparent truth that all love fades.

Woodstock (1970)

Released on the album Ladies of the Canyon, Woodstock is a cover of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Mitchell didn’t attend the famous festival herself, but her tribute to the original song perfectly encapsulates the hope, love, and freedom that the late 1960s hippie movement stood for.

As a spectator rather than a participant of the event, she watched in a hotel room in New York, Mitchell’s version gives an intimacy that wasn’t present at the festival itself, considering the 400,000 people in attendance.

Help Me (1974)

From the first guitar chord to the soft backing vocals, Help Me is a quintessential Mitchell track. Lyrically bouncing between the juxtaposing desire to be in love and the dread of vulnerability that comes with it.

The mix of soft rock and smooth jazz complements the lyrics perfectly, as the sounds are as mysterious as they are hopeful. Mitchell is someone with a history of falling in love and ultimately ending up disappointed and heartbroken. She repeatedly calls for someone to help her, and despite the song appearing to be aimed at someone else, as a listener we can only assume the person she is pleading with is herself.

A Case Of You (1971)

A Case Of You begins as an ode to her homeland of Canada, even featuring “O Canada” in the second verse. However, it actually serves as one of Mitchell’s softest and most charmingly romantic songs. She may make reference to loneliness and the bitter sweetness of love, but Mitchell also admits that her former lover touched her soul.

Mitchell rarely sings about love in a way that will get you skipping for joy. However, even in the grip of despair, she finds true beauty in the old creed that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Carey (1971)

Blue is considered to be one of the most influential albums of all time in the singer-songwriter genre and Carey is a near perfect example of the art form. The song was informed by her time living in a hippie commune on the Greek island of Crete and Carey was a chef she met there.

The song allows the listener to see into the free spirited heart of Mitchell as she reminisces on her time in the commune before she has to leave and return to ‘real life.’ From the first second through to the very end Mitchell showcases her ability to transport her audience to another place, both physically and emotionally.

Big Yellow Taxi (1970)

Never before or since has an environmental message got people singing along in the way that Big Yellow Taxi does. Mitchell wrote the song when she was vacationing in Hawaii when she was looking out from her hotel balcony at the picturesque mountains in the distance.

Underneath the light-hearted melody is a serious lament about humanity’s desire to destroy the things that it loves. Rather than hoping for the noise and yellow taxis of New York, that many musicians were singing about at the time, Mitchell takes us to a simpler time and reinforces the importance of conservation. A message that stays in your head for hours with those catchy shoo-ba-bas.

Both Sides Now (2000)

Mitchell’s most famous song has been covered by over 50 other artists, due to its enduring and almost universal popularity. Lyrically, the song is staggeringly beautiful, but it is the performance on her jazz album, of the same name, which turns both sides now into an undisputed masterpiece.

Having originally recorded the song in 1969, to critical acclaim, her retelling of the age-old story of love and loss is given increased poignancy. It is as though Mitchell is singing to her 25-year-old self, laughing scornfully that she knew clouds, love or life at all. The genius of her later version of the song is the build to the crescendo where a life-wearied but still hopeful Mitchell accepts that life is one riddle she is still trying to figure out.

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