Joni Mitchell, immortal songs in weird chords

By Sergio Ariza

Joni Mitchell forms, together with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the Holy Trinity of the great singer-songwriters of the 20th century, but, paraphrasing David Crosby, we could say that Joni is as good a poet as any of them and a much better musician. Mitchell's guitar playing, using more than 50 different tunings and those chords that she herself has baptized as "Joni's weird chords", make her music much more personal, sophisticated and unique.  

The artist came into the world on November 7, 1943, under the name of Roberta Joan Anderson, in Canada. From a young age she showed a great interest in the arts, mainly painting and music, her first instrument was a piano but soon after she started taking guitar lessons following Pete Seeger's book The Folksinger's Guitar Guide, but, having had polio as a child, she didn't have much strength in her left hand so she started using open tunings.


At first her repertoire was based on the open major tunings that the old blues guys invented. She knew Neil Young on the Toronto folk scene who was also using them; as they had met when Joni travelled to the Canadian city to make a name for herself as a folk singer. The scene was a difficult one as the older guys were keeping the best traditional songs for them, even though they hadn't written them, so the young singer began to write her own, the first being Day After Day.

Soon the first wonders began to arrive, such as Urge for Going, one of the few songs in her repertoire composed with a normal tuning, or The Circle Game, composed in response to Young's Sugar Mountain, who thought that, at 21 years old, he had already lost all his youth. On Urge For Going she longed to get out of Canada and see warmer climes, not knowing, she would end up forever associated with California as the crowned Queen of the Laurel Canyon scene.

But before that, in April 1965, she left Canada for the first time with Charles Scott "Chuck" Mitchell, another aspiring folk singer, whom she would marry shortly after in New York and from whom she would take the last name by which she would always be known. They settled in Detroit where Joni continued to develop her style, based on alternate tunings, and where, at a performance at Fort Bragg, she came across the guitar that would define her career, a 1956 Martin D-28 that had been in Vietnam and had been damaged by shrapnel. Its owner, a U.S. Marine captain, gave it to Mitchell as a gift in 1966 and that guitar featured on all of her albums until For The Roses. The singer has always considered it the best she ever owned, going so far as to say "I don't know if the blast did anything to the wood modules, but that guitar was a trooper"


In early 1967 she divorced Chuck Mitchell and moved to New York, where word began to spread about her talent as a songwriter and guitarist, although it would be the former that would bring her to fame. Suddenly several artists began recording her songs, Tom Rush, George Hamilton IV, Dave Van Ronk, Buffy Sainte-Mary and finally the artist who would make her a household name, Judy Collins, whose version of Both Sides Now became a hit in 1967. It was that same year when David Crosby saw her playing and offered to accompany her to Los Angeles where he landed her a recording contract with Represe. Mitchell and Crosby began a relationship that did not end well with Joni ending up fed up with the former Byrds’ member presenting her as his discovery.

Even so, Crosby recorded an album with hardly any ornamentation, with little more than her voice and guitar. The result was Song To A Seagull, an album in which Mitchell decided not to use the many songs that had been recorded by others, an album that showed her enormous potential, with great songs like I Had A King or Marcie, but that would soon be surpassed.


That improvement would come with Clouds, produced by herself and with a cover that is a self-portrait of Joni herself. The album already shows a much more mature and sophisticated artist, containing subtle and unconventional harmonies, in addition to repackaging two of the best songs of her career, which had already been hits for other artists, Both Sides Now and Chelsea Morning. Released in May 1969, it made her a cult figure and the golden image of the California hippie girl, something that also had to do with her own portrait – that is, of a girl with golden hair and clear eyes holding a flower.

So, as could not be otherwise, she was one of the guests at the massive Woodstock concert, but her manager had gotten her a slot on one of the most important programs on American television, the Dick Cavett Show, for the day after Woodstock and after hearing the news of the endless queues and the chaos that reigned there, they convinced her not to go. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (in their first concert together), the group that included her ex Crosby, her friend Young,
Stephen Stills (who had played on her first two albums and would also play on Blue and For The Roses) and Graham Nash, her current partner and one of the great loves of her life, did perform there.


Her absence from the festival would lead her to compose one of the most famous songs of her career, Woodstock, which appeared on her next work, Ladies Of The Canyon, her first masterpiece, and which would also have a rock-focused version by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Ladies Of The Canyon was still anchored in folk but Joni expanded musically and lyrically, adding piano pieces, such as the wonderful For Free or Willie, vocal choirs more typical of girl groups, as in the irresistible Big Yellow Taxi (which contains her most rounded chorus, "they paved paradise, and put on a parking lot"), complex vocal harmonies, as in the title track or the wonderful cello of the baroque Rainy Night House. The album was a hit and made her a star, leading her to be one of the headliners of the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival. She was the queen of Laurel Canyon and its sound but Joni revolted against it all and decided to leave it all behind. She retired from the stage for a year, went off to tour Europe and broke off her relationship with Graham Nash.

Many of the best songs of her career were written during that trip, things like the infectious Carey or California, and on her way back she began a relationship with singer-songwriter
James Taylor, then almost unknown, and from it would also emerge other barbarities like All I Want and Blue, the song that was to give name to the best album of her entire career, and one of the fundamental works in any self-respecting music lover's collection.

In the sound of that album there was another fundamental element: Joni had acquired a dulcimer and had learned to play it, appearing and giving the distinctive touch to songs as irresistible as All I Want, Carey, California (where, besides the dulcimer, James Taylor's guitar and the unmistakable pedal steel of Sneaky Pete Kleinow are heard) and A Case of You, another of the fundamental songs of her career.


In Blue she kept nothing for herself, opening up as rarely has an artist done, whether female or male, making an astonished Kris Kristofferson, after listening to the album, say to the Canadian "for God's sake Joni, keep something for yourself". Blue is the pinnacle of confessional albums in which a singer decides to show even the smallest scar on her soul.

The album was another great commercial success which led her to return to the road, where she presented several of the songs that were to appear on her next work, For The Roses, a transitional album between her folk period and the more sophisticated and jazzy one that was to inaugurate Court And Spark. In For The Roses many more instruments began to appear, for which Mitchell got some of the best session musicians in the world, like
James Burton himself or Russ Kunkel on drums. The best remembered song from that album was the delightful You Turn Me On I'm A Radio, which she ironically composed in the face of requests from his label to write a hit song.


But it was with her next album, Court And Spark, that she broke all stylistic barriers, mixing the folk of his origins with pop, country , rock and, mainly, jazz, the style towards which she would soon turn, as can be seen in the finale of this album with the 'noir' atmospheres of Trouble Child and his magnificent version of Annie Ross's Twisted, which was on the album she had learned by heart as a young woman, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross's The Hottest New Group in Jazz.

There was Help Me (with a final solo by legendary studio guitarist Larry Carlton), Free Man In Paris, Down To You and Raised On Robbery, with accompaniment by
Robbie Robertson of The Band. It was the commercial peak of her career, climbing to number 2 in the US charts and giving way to the live album Miles Of Aisles, accompanied by the jazz fusion band L.A. Express, which also reached that position.


Shortly after she joined Bob Dylan on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour and appeared in The Band's farewell concert, The Last Waltz, playing Coyote. At that time her last two great works also appeared, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, in 1975, and Hejira, in 1976, where she is accompanied by the fretless bass of Jaco Pastorius; making it clear that Mitchell was opting for a much more experimental and sophisticated phase.

Her strange chords continued to give rise to increasingly convoluted and complex melodies, and she even rubbed shoulders with jazz luminaries such as Charles Mingus and Pat Metheny, but Joni continued to experiment with her music until she decided to stop altogether. Possibly she had no choice but to repeat herself, and that is something she has never endured.

In short, what can we say about a songwriter whose songs have been sung by Prince and Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin, Sufjan Stevens and the Byrds, Herbie Hancock and Dolly Parton, Fairport Convention and Hole, Lana del Rey and Björk, Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello? Well, while her peers sang about the time or the moment, looking outward, she decided to put a magnifying glass to the deepest part of her essence, undressing herself emotionally with a courage never seen before. That's what gives her catalog such an important resonance and, to paraphrase the author herself, we could drink a case full of Joni and still be on our feet... And wanting more.