Joni Mitchell, folk-jazz heroine of the post-hippy era, is celebrating her 71st birthday — which was on November 7, so many belated happy returns — with a four-disc box set compilation and a revealing memoir, In Her Own Words. What do you need to know about the woman who inspired several generations of sensitive self-excavating songwriters?
If you only know ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, you don’t know anything.
This novelty environmentalist tune from 1970 remains Joni’s best-known moment, and famously prompted Alan Partridge to hilariously lambast her “blinkered view of the world”. For the real good stuff, though, dig into her astonishing run of 70s albums: ‘Blue’, ‘For The Roses’, ‘Court And Spark’, ‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’ and ‘Hejira’, from the years when the coltish, toothy blonde with the downwards-pointing smirk was living in Laurel Canyon, falling in and out of love with a succession of celebrated males (David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Warren Beatty), then making records about it, often with those same males in her backing band. Which is pretty twisted.
She hasn’t always had it easy.
She may be from a middle-class Canadian background, but Joni has suffered as much hardship as any Mississippi blues singer. As a young woman, poverty forced her to give up a child for adoption, inspiring her much-covered ‘Both Sides Now’ and the more cryptic ‘Little Green”’. She was stricken by polio at eight and in later life developed Morgellons Disease, whose victims imagine that their skin is crawling. She also has a strange affliction which causes her to suddenly burst into tears: the simple sight of a bulldozer once made her cry. Perhaps it was on its way to pave Paradise and put up a parking lot.
Her music is too clever to sell by the billion.
Joni is no rudimentary folk strummer. Her records invariably feature sumptuous textures and complex chord structures. This arose by accident as much as design: her polio-weakened fingers forced her to experiment with alternative tunings. “I am a painter who writes songs, my songs are very visual”, she says, and she’s not wrong — vivid imagery is a Joni trademark. Want an example? “Coyote’s in the coffee shop/He’s staring a hole in his scrambled eggs/He picks up my scent on his fingers, while he’s watching the waitresses’ legs…”
Even when you aren’t hearing Joni, you’re hearing Joni.
Her records might not be played much on radio but Mitchell has inspired generations of female singer-songwriters, from the winsome-but-witless to genuinely great talents. Think Laura Mvula, Laura Marling, anyone called Laura really. Prince is a huge fan too. He namechecked Joni on ‘Ballad Of Dorothy Parker’, covered her classic ‘A Case Of You’ and borrowed one of her lyrics for ‘When We’re Dancing Close And Slow’.
She’s refreshingly uninterested in fame and riches.
Joni’s been inducted into The Rock ‘n’/and Roll Hall Of Fame and received eight Grammy Awards, but rarely shows up at the ceremonies. She’s turned down a million-dollar Las Vegas concert, and a lucrative appearance at Vancouver’s Winter Olympics. Mind you, she lives between a luxury pad in Bel Air and a house she built on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, so probably isn’t short of a few bob.
What to say: “If she’d been born a man, she’d be as treasured as Dylan or Cohen. She isn’t just a genius — she’s a Jonius.”
What not to say: “Hey Joni, fancy a visit to Diggerland?”